Coronavirus anxiety: how to avoid emotional exhaustion while you’re in lockdown

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Lauren Geall
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Feeling emotionally overwhelmed as a result of the coronavirus outbreak? You’re not alone. Here, an expert explains why we’re all feeling so mentally stretched at the moment, and how to deal with it.

Last week, something odd happened. My day hadn’t been particularly hard – I’d settled into my working from home routine and felt pretty good about the work I’d completed – but all of a sudden, I started to feel the familiar prickle of tears in my eyes. Before I knew it, I was full-on crying.

As big, heavy sobs rose through my body and I tried to work out what was going on, I suddenly realised how overwhelmed I’d been feeling about the coronavirus pandemic. Crying was, it seemed, the only way my mind knew how to handle things.

I know I’m not the only one feeling emotionally overwhelmed at the moment. Many of my fellow Stylist team members said they have found themselves feeling suddenly overwhelmed over the last couple of weeks, some even more than once. 

“Friday was terrible for me,” explains Kayleigh Dray, Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. “I thought I had things under control but I had a sudden crying fit before our morning news meeting, and a few people could tell from the break in my voice over the microphone. It’s strange. I can go hours without thinking about it and then, just like that, it’s all there and I feel like I’m gasping for air. Talking helps. But I’m home alone a lot now, so not sure what else I can really do.”

Hanna Ibraheem, Stylist’s senior beauty writer, shared a similar experience: “After a fairly normal – well, as normal as can be right now – day, I switched off my laptop and just burst into tears. There was no specific reason behind it, it just happened. Over the week, it happened again in the shower, another time before bed and once over my Weetabix. There has never been a specific trigger behind any of these moments but I’ve always ended my little crying sessions feeling SO much better.”

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Most of us are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress at the moment – especially when it comes to reading and consuming the news – but could the random bouts of crying be a sign of emotional exhaustion?

“We’re much better at understanding exhaustion in terms of physical effort and effects than emotional ones. However, mental or emotional activities and outputs also have an impact on our health,” Dr Meg Arroll, psychologist and author at Ten Harley Street, explains. “Just as we wouldn’t exercise hour after hour without a break, we shouldn’t expend emotional energy without respite. Therefore, we must give our emotional muscles rest too so that they can repair, by first becoming more aware of all the emotional work we do on a daily basis, including consuming the news.”

If you’re feeling a lot of anxiety, and find yourself crying at random times throughout the day, chances are you’re not giving your “emotional muscles” sufficient time to rest – and therefore causing yourself to feel emotionally exhausted. 

A woman feeling stressed
Are you feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with all the coronavirus updates? You could be experiencing emotional exhaustion.

Defined as “a state of feeling emotionally worn-out and drained as a result of accumulated stress from your personal or work lives,” emotional exhaustion is one of the signs of burnout.

According to Healthline, symptoms of emotional exhaustion include, but are not limited to:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Physical fatigue
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Absentmindedness
  • Apathy
  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Irrational anger
  • Increased cynicism or pessimism
  • A sense of dread
  • Depression

While staying informed during the coronavirus outbreak is obviously important, we also need to make sure we’re taking time away from all the stressful headlines to give ourselves a break and avoid emotional exhaustion.

“Reading the news can make us emotionally exhausted because headlines are devised specifically to trigger an emotive response,” Dr Arroll explains. “This emotive response is often fear, so the mind and body are likely to go into fight-or-flight mode, with the associated physiological processes that come with it.

“Without a break from this we cannot go back to a state or equilibrium and may reach a point of allostatic overload, wherein we’ve used all of our resources and are ‘in the red’ as it were – this is the point where symptoms start to appear such as fatigue, headaches, sleeping difficulties and cognitive problems.”

As emotional exhaustion is one of the symptoms of burnout, it’s important to try and manage any signs of it as soon as possible. Crying, for example, could be a sign that you need to take a step back from the news and take some time for yourself, whether that’s via self-care, distraction or mindfulness meditation (allowing yourself to have a good cry can also help to release tension and help you feel better). 

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To wean yourself off the news, and reduce the impact it’s having on your mental health, Dr Arroll recommends gradually building healthy news habits.

“In clinic, I wean individuals off news outlets and apps with a detox plan by first asking them to turn off all notifications, then to choose just one trusted source of news,” she explains. “Next, we set specific times to check the news (usually only once in the morning and evening) and to watch news with others so it can be discussed, rather than in isolation where repetitive and ruminative thoughts can go unchecked.

“Focus on the facts, rather than rumours, from trusted sources such as the WHO website and/or local health authorities.”

A woman on her phone
If the news is making you feel overwhelmed, seek out information from a few trusted sources.

Dr Arroll also recommends looking for the feel-good stories coming out of the coronavirus outbreak – notably, all the acts of kindness making a difference for vulnerable people.

“Instead of primarily focusing on the worldwide (often overwhelming) view, zoom-in and find the positive and hopeful stories of local people who have recovered from difficult experiences. I also believe in the saying ‘look for the helpers’ – there is always human kindness, bravery and grace in very difficult times like this and by seeking out these actions, we can come to a sense of acceptance, even in the face of great loss.

“Be active in honouring these helpers by acknowledging their contribution. Whereas passively consuming negative stories can lead to emotional burnout, anxiety and depression, actively celebrating positive experiences can boost our mood and wellbeing.”

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